Russia’s President Vladimir Putin “probably” approved the fatal poisoning of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium in London in 2006, a public inquiry has found.
Sir Robert Owen, the head of the long-running investigation, said it was likely that the Russian leader signed off the killing of the former spy following a long-time feud.
His 300-page report said Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun were probably acting under the direction of Moscow’s federal intelligence service, the FSB, when they poisoned the 43-year-old with radioactive polonium 210 at the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair.
Singling out then-FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev alongside Mr Putin, Sir Robert wrote:
“Taking full account of all the evidence and analysis available to me I find that the FSB operation to kill Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev and also by President Putin.”
Sir Robert pointed to Mr Litvinenko’s work for British intelligence, criticism of the FSB and Mr Putin, and his association with other dissidents such as Boris Berezovsky as likely motives.
There was also “undoubtedly a personal dimension to the antagonism” between Mr Putin and Litvinenko.
Tensions dated back to their only face-to-face meeting in 1998, when Mr Putin was head of the FSB and Litvinenko wanted him to bring in reforms.
The former spy made “repeated highly personal attacks” on the President after seeking asylum in the UK in 2000, including an allegation of paedophilia in July 2006.
“I am satisfied that in general terms, members of the Putin administration, including the president himself and the FSB, had motives for taking action against Litvinenko, including killing him, in late 2006,” Sir Robert wrote.
Although evidence was “circumstantial”, other cases suggested that “in the years prior to Litvinenko’s death the Russian state may have been involved in the assassination of Mr Putin’s critics”.
Sir Robert said he was “sure” Mr Litvinenko’s murder had been carried out by Lugovoy and Kovtun, who are both wanted by UK authorities but who Russia has refused to extradite. The use of polonium 210 was also said to be “at the very least a strong indicator of state involvement”, as it had to be made in a nuclear reactor.
Home Secretary Theresa May has now revealed that the Treasury has agreed to impose asset freezes on Lugovoi and Kovtun in the wake of the report’s findings.
The inquiry heard evidence that Litvinenko may have been consigned to a slow death from radiation, rather than shot, in order to “send a message”.
Mr Litvinenko’s widow Marina said outside the High Court she was “very pleased that the words my husband spoke on his deathbed when he accused Mr Putin have been proved by an English court.”
In a statement released in 2006 as he lay dying, her husband had said: “You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people.”
Lugovoi has since said the charges were “absurd”.
Speaking to the Interfax news agency, he said: “As we expected, there was no sensation. The results of the investigation that were announced today once again confirm London’s anti-Russian position and the blinkered view and unwillingness of the British to establish the true cause of Litvinenko’s death.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the inquiry was not impartial and claimed the conclusions had been pre-determined. In a statement, Maria Zhakarova said “we regret that a purely criminal case has been politicised and has darkened the general atmosphere of bilateral relations”.
She added that “clearly the decision to suspend the coroner’s inquest and begin ‘public hearings’ was politically motivated”.
There have been fears that linking the killing directly to Mr Putin could trigger fresh strain on relations between Britain and Russia.